Interview with cartoonist Daniele Caluri

Daniele Caluri Daniele Caluri Daniele Caluri is a well-known cartoonist from Livorno. His successful career began at Il Vernacoliere, the city's satirical magazine which is read all over Italy.

How was it that you started working with Il Vernacoliere at the age of 14?

In a very ordinary way: at school, a friend and I used to draw humorous cartoons during lessons we weren’t interested in. We would pass them back and forth under the desk to make each other laugh (and to get each other sent out of the classroom). Once I managed to get my friend thrown out of class because he was in such fits of laughter, and afterwards I decided to post the cartoon that had made him laugh so much in the letter box of the Il Vernacoliere magazine, close to my school. A month later it was published and I’ve been collaborating with the magazine ever since, for the past 26 years. 

Did you always hope that drawing would become your work?

Yes, for as long as I can remember. I’ve done other jobs, but I’ve always tried to pursue my drawing. It’s a strange and terrible job, but also a fantastic one. It requires a lot of time, but it’s what I do best, and in a precarious period like the one we are going through at the moment, with no stability of any kind, I keep studying and working hard to keep it up. 

How did you get the idea for Don Zauker?

The idea actually came from Emiliano Pagani, another long-time collaborator with Il Vernacoliere. We had just completed a series of cartoons and had met for a brainstorming session in order to explore ideas for new characters. At that time the TV, radio and everything else was overrun with priests, popes and cardinals. It was a real media offensive and a considerable intrusion into the lives of the Italian people. Emiliano started imagining an evil exorcist and at the same time I began to sketch him on a piece of paper. Then we needed a name: we considered Don Lurio, Don Backy, Don Johnson, but in the end the name Don Zauker just transpired by itself: Don Zauker, the leader of the Meganoids in the Japanese anime series Daitarn III.

Do you think Don Zauker can be appreciated outside Italy? Has the comic strip ever been translated into other languages?

Yes, Don Zauker can be understood in the rest of Italy and abroad because we have always avoided local or contingent realities. In fact, the comic strip has cornered many prizes at the main cartoon festivals in Italy. Despite Don Zauker’s despicable actions, he still appears to be better than those who support him or those who give him credit just because of his priest’s clothing. The comic strip ridicules not only the Church, but also and especially the lack of critical thinking on the part of many believers; blindness, the “sleep of reason”, as Goya put it. Don Zauker also touches on other universal themes.

The comic strip has been translated and published in France, Belgium, Canada and Spain. 

How long does it take you to create your drawings?

It depends on the drawing, obviously, and on lots of other factors: on whether it has to be a realistic or humorous drawing, the background, the setting, whether it’s current or historical, how much research is involved and how much detail is required. To complete a comic strip it can take me from an afternoon up to three days. 

Do you share the sense of humour of Il Vernacoliere and the Livornese people in general?

I don’t just share it: I am a product of it! The Livornese humour is vulgar, cutting, omnipresent, with a certain horror vacui. For the Livornese, a witty remark is not only a way of putting down those in authority and those who take themselves too seriously; it is also a means of defence and self-irony, a way of filling a void or a silence, and of reacting against adversities. It is a form of irony that represents the soul of Livorno, its invincible armour and, paradoxically, also its biggest weakness. 

Why do you think the Livornese have this sense of humour that distinguishes them from the rest of Italy?

I think it is mainly a means of defence due to an inferiority complex towards the other towns in Tuscany which have a longer history and a greater wealth of art and culture. Although the area around Livorno has been inhabited since prehistoric times, the city itself is relatively new compared to Pisa, Lucca, Florence and Siena. The city was only created in the 16th century by the Medici. The most interesting aspect of its history dates back to the end of the 1500s when, in order to populate the new city, the Grand Dukes passed the laws known as the Leggi Livornine which guaranteed religious freedom, as well as the annulment of past crimes, to those who settled here.

Many, including myself, believe that the Livornese sense of humour -  so un-pc and often vulgar – is the result of this melting pot of people from so many different backgrounds, and that this is why it is so intent on desecrating political, military and religious authority. 

Are you able to detach yourself from your work, or are you always on the lookout for new ideas?

Confucius said “Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life."  I have channelled all my energies into achieving this and I realize now that even though my work requires a great deal of time and energy, it is also something I love. I’m not always searching for new ideas: I’ve learnt that valid ideas have to arise on their own. When they do, I’m ready to take them on board. 

What do you enjoy doing when you’re not working?

The same things as everyone else: travelling, cinema, spending time with friends, my partner and my one-year-old son. I like finding new things to do, new events to go to, and also take pleasure in other people's initiatives.

What was your most unforgettable journey, and why?

My first InterRail trip when I travelled halfway round Europe. Why? Because I was twenty years old.

Do you have any trips planned for the future?

Yes, many, although for now I’m chained to my drawing board and can’t even think about going away if I want to finish the projects I’m working on. In the near future I would like to go to far-off places with completely different cultures, places outside Europe and the United States.  

Do you like music? What kind? Do you play an instrument or sing?

Music is essential to me, both classical and popular music. When I was young I used to play the electric organ. I can’t say I’m a musician, but that experience gave me an education in listening to music which encourages me to look for new kinds of music and different types of expression which might stimulate me in my work, and for pleasure. It’s exciting because I discover famous and lesser-known artists in contemporary music, as well as wonderful treasures from the music of the past. For years I only listened to bands from the incredible period of British progressive rock: King Crimson, Genesis, Yes, Jethro Tull, Gentle Giant, Caravan, Pink Floyd, Who, Soft Machine, Robert Wyatt, Mike Oldfield, and consequently the Italian groups such as Area, Banco del Mutuo Soccorso, PFM, and more recently Elio e le Storie Tese. At the moment I’m really into Radiohead. In general, with the exception of Frank Zappa, I prefer British to American rock. On the Italian music scene I also admire De André and Piero Ciampi. But I’ve left out lots more.

Can you cook? If so, what are your best dishes?

Yes, I enjoy cooking. Needless to say, I’m good at making fish dishes. 

Do you have any particular ambitions for the future? How do you see yourself in 20 years’ time?

I’d like to be able to continue to do this marvellous job which allows me lots of room for variety. It might seem to be a contradiction, but my biggest ambition is to stay as I am now. 

Are there any Livornese artists that you especially admire?

There is a great line by Vinicio Capossela, from his Modì album: “Perché Livorno dà gloria soltanto all’esilio, e ai morti la celebrità” [‘because Livorno only glorifies those in exile, and celebrates the dead’], which I think sums up the idea. Modigliani, who was an absolute genius, never succeeded in living as an artist in Livorno, let alone me! The only opportunity I have found to work in this city is with Il Vernacoliere, unjustly criticized  by many locals. The rest I have found in Milan and Modena, in France and Spain. For this reason I can’t really answer this question. I don’t know the local artist scene and I’ve never been part of it. It’s not that I mean to snub local artists; it’s just that I’ve always had to look for work elsewhere and so I’ve never had the time or a chance to get to know them. 

What advice would you give to today’s young artists?

These days all it takes is a couple of clicks to show your work to the whole world: all you need is a blog, a Facebook profile, and a series of links. It's so it’s much easier to get yourself seen than it was a few years ago. On the other hand, it’s also much easier to burn yourself out if you don’t have the perseverance to keep presenting yourself to the world.

What do you love most about Livorno? Is there anything you can’t stand?

I love the aspects I’ve already mentioned: the people’s inability to take authority seriously, their sense of humour, their informal attitude, and their openness towards foreigners, especially when compared to other parts of Italy. I can’t stand the people’s superficiality, their provincialism and their total lack of civic mindedness.

It is often said that “Livorno has nothing to offer”. What do you think?

I think it’s a generalisation, but there is some truth in it. As far as work and opportunities are concerned, it is undoubtedly true. The few creative initiatives that exist here are rarely encouraged or promoted by the local administration, and when they are, it is only superficially and without any real backing. Ironically, this void, especially in terms of culture, seems to produce a counter-reaction of extraordinary passion which, for many, is the only key to getting out of this prison. 

Are there any aspects of Livorno, or any places that you would improve?

Yes: I’ve already mentioned the historical and artistic differences between Livorno and the other cities in Tuscany. Livorno’s vocation as a more industrial city has created an enormous misinterpretation which has continued for years, identifying Livorno as a kind of dumping ground whose places of interest and value are not considered worth saving or promoting. 

I would like to see more green areas, instead of all the new building; I would like to see the Fortezza Nuova reopened and returned to the city with its new lighting system (realised with European funds but out of use for years); I would like to see the restoration of the Terme del Corallo, a sublime example of early-20th century Art Nouveau architecture which has been home to rats and infesting plants for years; I would like to see cultural events that look beyond local cuisine and local situations. There’s lots more, and the answer I would probably get is that there is no money to spend. This may be true, but we have to think beyond this aspect: what is missing fundamentally in Livorno is long-term vision. 

If you could live in another city, which one would you choose?

Prague, because of its magical atmosphere, and the general buzz I felt while I was there, probably due to the renewal of the country. I found the city - with its incredible wealth of history – extremely fascinating.

Do you have a favourite restaurant or bar in Livorno?

Yes: my mum’s house.

Choose: Ponce or Corretto al Sassolino [coffee laced with a local aniseed liqueur]

Well, when Ponce is well made, it really hits you! A Ponce will help you to face the winter better than any aspirin!  Coffee laced with Sassolino is more like a good friend who lifts your spirits and puts you in a good mood. I don’t really distinguish between the two when it comes to enjoyment. 

Choose: Bagno or Scoglio [rocks]?

I always go to the scogli, and always have done.

Cacciucco or triglie [Red Mullet]?

That’s like asking “who do you love best, your mum or your dad?”

Find out more about Daniele Caluri by visiting his website